‘Am I really wanted here?’ A new college guide aims to provide answers.

Noting that belonging has become “an important consideration for college-bound students from all backgrounds and beliefs,” The Hechinger Report has created a College Welcome Guide, a “first of its kind” digital resource that allows users to explore schools based on state laws, policies, and other indicators of campus culture. Knitting together data from a variety of sources, the tool is designed to give prospective students a window into a college’s climate across issues such as accessibility, representation, voting rights, race, abortion, and gender and sexual orientation.

Seeking to go beyond measures of academic reputation, the interactive guide indicates, for instance, which schools are located in states where students may be prohibited from accessing in-state tuition or financial aid based on their immigration status. It also shows which schools are based in states with restrictions on abortion or anti-LGBTQ+ laws and anti-trans laws, which typically restrict trans students’ access to sports and medical procedures.

Digging into the details

The College Welcome Guide contains a table with data from more than 4,000 four-year colleges and universities. Users can toggle between categories to see a school’s share of Pell Grant recipients, enrollment rates (including total by age, gender, race, and ethnicity); graduation rates; free speech policies; volume of hate crimes; faculty demographics; and resources for LGBTQ+ students, students with disabilities, and veteran students. 

The guide also includes an interactive map, which allows users to compare laws and policies across all 50 states; Washington, DC; and Puerto Rico related to nine categories, including tuition and financial aid for undocumented students; tuition policies for veterans; diversity, equity, and inclusion policies; abortion laws; and acceptance of student ID to vote. Students can also use another interactive tool in the guide to compare up to five colleges to examine graduation rates for the entire student body and by race or ethnicity.

The Hechinger Report says its guide encompasses data from over a dozen sources, including the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), which features information on two- and four-year colleges shared with the Department of Education; the Higher Education Immigration Portal; the Voting Rights Lab; and the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.

Cultural climate shaping school choice

The guide has compiled data on institutional policies and state laws that students say they are most concerned about, The Hechinger Report explains. According to a survey by the higher education consulting Arts & Science Group LLC, one in four prospective students across the political spectrum have ruled out schools based on a state’s social policies. Prospective conservative students surveyed said schools in California and New York are most likely to be off their list, while liberal students reported avoiding colleges in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

“There’s no question that what’s happening at the state level is directly affecting these students,” Alyse Levine, founder and CEO of the private college admissions firm Premium Prep, told The Hechinger Report. As students begin their college search across various states, she says, “There are students who are asking, ‘Am I really wanted here?’”

Both prospective and enrolled students report that states’ laws are affecting where they go—and where they stay enrolled. A Gallup and Lumina Foundation poll found that 72% of currently enrolled students said that the reproductive health laws in the state they attended college were at least somewhat important to their decision to remain enrolled. Among unenrolled students who do not have a college degree, 60% said these laws were at least somewhat important to their decision to enroll.

Students from backgrounds underrepresented in higher education are also worried about whether or not they will feel a sense of belonging on campus. Among military connected students, 63% and 70% report that faculty/administrators and students, respectively, have “little to no” understanding of their specific challenges, according to a 2017 report from the Institute for Veterans and Military Families. A Lumina Foundation-Gallup State of Higher Education 2022 study also showed that around one in four Latine students reported “frequently” or “occasionally” feeling disrespected, harassed, discriminated against, and physically and psychologically unsafe at their schools. One in five (21%) Black students also reported “frequently” or “occasionally” experiencing discrimination at postsecondary institutions, according to a Gallup-Lumina Foundation study released earlier this year.

While writing that “it’s too early to know” how much students’ focus on belonging, state policies, and campus climates will sway students’ college choices—given the lag in enrollment data—The Hechinger Report nonetheless says that “there are early clues that it’s having a significant impact.”

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